Learning From The Past: How DRM Failed in Australia

While doing research for my Ph.D. I came across the history of how radio was introduced in Australia – and how it initially failed due to some ancient DRM suggested by the industry heavyweights.

Official radio transmission in Australia commenced in 1923. In May that year the Postmaster-General convened a conference of all interested parties to consider the introduction of systematic broadcasting. At this conference E.T. Fisk, head of Amalgamated Wireless Australasia (AWA), the company that held the Australian rights to the most crucial wireless patents, proposed a scheme "which provided for competitive broadcasting by stations each having exclusive use of a particular wavelength in a given area and getting its income from subscriptions paid by listeners whose receivers were sealed to its wavelength alone" (Barnard, 1992: 6) – basically some old-school DRM (or should I say Analog Rights Management?).

The regulations were approved in July, the first licence was applied for in August and by the end of the year six had been issued. By March 1924 it was widely held that the sealed set system had failed: Less than 1400 listeners bothered to (officially) apply for a subscription.

The scheme was not only unenforceable but it also was not supported by the wireless dealers, therefore the main responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the scheme was placed in the hands of those most likely to undermine it (Counihan, 1992: 14): Of course the dealers weren't enthusiastic about selling some crippled technology that potentially could receive dozens of stations – and neither were the customers who resorted to 'piracy'. In short: "It was obvious that the sealed set scheme was doomed from the start" (Harte, 2002: 56).

In July 1924, after another conference, the sealed set was replaced by new regulations and a dual system, involving stations funded by advertising revenue, the so-called "B" stations, as well as stations financed out of listeners' licence fees, the "A" stations, began operating. Already by the end of 1924 some 38,000 Australians held "A" station licences.